This novel feels like Taylor has captured a period of the protagonist’s life and stored it upon one of the slides that Wallace, the protagonist, uses in the laboratory where he works.
A short period in time in which Wallace experiences and battles through all the problems that you would expect to confront a young black gay man living in a mid-west university town working on completing his biochemistry degree.
Having grown up in the deep south it will come as no surprise that Wallace, even with his close group of friends, feels like a fish out of water. However, as the novel progresses, we find that Wallace masks his feelings and is struggling enormously just to get by and is edging closer to a breakdown every day.
Much of the novel revolves around Wallace’s relationship with Miller. Miller, who is white, confused about his own sexuality, and has a terrible violent streak, which feels like it is going to explode forth every minute he is with Wallace. My blood pressure soared while reading the passages with Wallace and Miller. Whether they were having sex, fighting, or simply talking, there is a feeling of repressed violence always emanating from Miller. A violence that he barely keeps controlled.
The book’s focus is on these two characters, both flawed, both damaged, and both, particularly in Miller’s case, dangerous.
Taylor does a wonderful job of taking the reader into Wallace’s world. Everything that happens over the weekend seems to be, in Wallace’s mind, his fault. Are his problems as bad as he thinks? Is he really the victim of racial prejudice? It is not an easy read being inside Wallace’s head, and this is exactly how Taylor has intended it to be. Problems and grievances over the weekend always feel, from Wallace’s perspective, to start or initiate with him.
It is alarming to find the numerous subtle acts of racism. Acts enacted, that at times feel like the perpetrator is blissfully unaware of even having been racially offensive. Alarming as well, when Wallace just seems to believe that confrontation is simply not worth the effort. A way of life that has become so ingrained that the possibility of change seems irreversible.
At times you almost feel yourself drowning along with Wallace. At work he is labelled a misogynist and his boss indirectly tells him that he is not fitting in with his colleagues, and perhaps he should consider leaving, all the while he has done nothing wrong, and yet again his thoughts circle around and he eventually feels that it must be his fault.
This novel catapulted me out of my comfort zone. For the whole time I was reading it I felt confused, depressed, lonely, angry, and hurt. And I am certain that this is exactly what Taylor intends. The title could not be more apt. The problem , as this novel reveals, is that “real lives” for the minorities of this world many times equate to depressing lives, substandard lives, lives that could be improved and enriched if we all just tried a little harder, were a little kinder, and less inclined to judge. Nobody in life gets a free pass, we are all fighting our own battles and wars. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we all helped each other, regardless of race, sexuality, and class.
Novels such as this are a wonderful way of helping us to feel and understand what it is like to spend time residing in another human beings mind. It is, I feel, the only medium that can truly allow this to happen. It takes a skillful writer to pull this off, and Taylor's writing is marvelous and immersive. A wonderful debut. 4 Stars!
Brandon Taylor is the senior editor of Electric Literature's Recommended Reading and a staff writer at Literary Hub. His writing has received fellowships from Lambda Literary Foundation, Kimbilio Fiction, and the Tin House Summer Writer's Workshop. He holds graduate degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Iowa, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in fiction.
Here is a link to a podcast and transcript of Taylor talking about "Real Life" on the npr site - https://www.npr.org/2020/02/17/806729417/author-brandon-taylor-on-his-coming-of-age-novel-real-life